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Quiz: Is it a Case Study or a White Paper?

Every couple of weeks it seems, I see someone confuse customer case studies and white papers. People frequently call case studies "white papers," and vice versa - even marketing folks. In my narrowly focused case study world, I see them as distinctly different. But I can see where it's easy to confuse the two.

Why the confusion?
First, there are similarities. Customer case studies and white papers are both narrative forms of marketing that focus more on how challenges are solved rather than on heavy promotion. But beyond that, there are distinct differences.

Quiz
Let's take a little quiz. Answer "customer case study" or "white paper" for each of the following questions. The answers follow. Don't cheat!

1. The focus is on how a certain challenge is solved and the benefits of the solution, without being customer-specific.

2. The primary focus is one customer's experience with a product, service, solution or person.

3. The written document is typically 5-10 pages in length.

4. It can mention a customer's experience but mainly in the context of showing benefits/results.

5. It does not require external approval by a customer.

6. You can reuse the content in a dozen or more different ways.

7. In surveys of B2B technology buyers, this was named the most influential collateral type.

8. This educates readers about how a product/service/other solution looks in action.

Answers
1. Focuses on how a certain challenge is solved and the benefits of the solution, without being customer-specific.
Answer: White paper

A white paper gives a vendor the opportunity to highlight challenges and then details how a solution goes about answering those challenges. The focus is on capabilities and benefits generally, without diving into one customer's experience.

2. Focuses on one customer's experience with a product, service, solution or person.
Answer: Customer case study

In contrast to #1, a customer case study is about a customer from start to finish. While it still highlights challenges, solutions and benefits, it always does so in the context of a customer's experience.

3. Typically ranges 5-10 pages in length.
Answer: White paper

White papers are usually at least twice as long as customer case studies, which typically range from 1-4 pages. White papers use that extra space to go into much more detail on the stated challenge or problem, ways that can be solved and the benefits/drawbacks.

4. Can mention a customer's experience but mainly in the context of showing benefits/results.
Answer: White paper

White papers are not free of customer examples. In fact, they can really bring life to a white paper. But a customer example here would be mentioned in context, in summary, in the doc, rather than being the focus of the entire piece.

Check out this article by Jonathan Kantor about how to weave customer examples into white papers.

5. Requires external approval by a customer.
Answer: Customer case study

Customer case studies that mention the customer by name are collaborative pieces. You interview the customer and the customer reviews, edits and approves what you create. However, if a white paper mentions a customer by name, and that content has not been approved previously by the customer, then it will also need approval.

6. Contains content that can be used in a dozen or more different ways.
Answer: Customer case study

While you may be able to use certain parts of white papers, the content does not pull out in as many ways as with case studies. You can repurpose and reuse case study content for numerous sales and marketing activities, such as blog posts, newsletters, sales letters, sales presentations and proposals.

7. In surveys of B2B technology buyers, this was named the most influential collateral type.
Answer: White paper

According to Eccolo Media, which runs an annual B2B technology collateral survey, respondents ranked white papers the most influential type of collateral. BUT, case studies were a close second.

8. Educates readers about how a product/service/other solution looks in action.
Answer: Both!

Customer case studies and white papers alike serve to educate prospects about how something works, whether that's a piece of technology, a consulting engagement, or the experience of getting your kitchen remodeled.

Still unsure of the differences?
If there's still any confusion, here are some short descriptions of both media...

Customer case studies:
Focuses on a customer's experience with a product, service or provider with a look at the customer's challenge, the specific solution applied and the outcomes (benefits/results) of the engagement.

White papers:
For this description, I turned to my trusty bookshelf, where I pulled my friend Michael Stelzner's book, "Writing White Papers." It's excellent, by the way, if you haven't checked it out.

Here's how Mike defines a white paper at a high level:
"A white paper is a persuasive document that usually describes problems and how to solve them. The white paper is a crossbreed of a magazine article and a brochure. It takes the objective and educational approach of an article and weaves in persuasive corporate messages typically found in brochures."

So, weigh in. How would you describe either of these media?

 

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More Stories By Casey Hibbard

Casey Hibbard is the founder and president of Compelling Cases, Inc. and author of "Stories That Sell: Turn Satisfied Customers into Your Most Powerful Sales & Marketing Asset." She has helped dozens of companies create and manage nearly 500 customer case studies and success stories over the past decade. Casey is featured in numerous books, articles, and teleclasses. She consults with organizations one-on-one and conducts online customer-story classes.